Question: I read in one of your interviews that horses don’t have the capacity to show off. But they do have a capacity for fear. Can you talk a little more about that difference, and how we know they are capable of one, but not the other? I believe there have been studies that show that horses can respond to human facial cues (i.e. responding with an increased heart rate when they are shown an angry facial expression indicating they are afraid). We don’t know, but if this is in fact an evolutionary development, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a horse that learns to command positive attention/smiles from humans (i.e. “by showing off”) would be better off from an evolutionary perspective?

Renate Larssen: The reason we know that horses feel fear is because fear is a core emotion with a long evolutionary history in all animals. Fear is a fundamental survival mechanism that allows an individual to escape or avoid harm. It’s also an emotion that can easily be observed in studies, as conspicuous behaviors such as flight and aggression. Of all animal emotions, fear is probably the one that has been most thoroughly studied and is best understood.

“Showing off,” however, is a more complex emotional phenomenon that requires higher mental capabilities than simply identifying potential danger. The purpose of showing off is to impress or achieve a certain status among peers in a social group, based on certain pre-defined attributes that are considered desirable within that group. To be able to show off, an individual needs to know beforehand what these attributes are and understand that their audience finds them desirable.

Showing off thus requires the ability to understand what another individual is thinking and to predict how certain actions will make them feel. These are advanced cognitive capacities, and we currently don’t have any proof that horses possess them.

Furthermore, we don’t belong to the same social group as our horses and don’t desire the same things as them. Would you strut your new Ariat boots or flaunt your recent UX/UI design skills in front of your horse? Probably not, because they wouldn’t understand what you were doing, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care very much. The same thing applies the other way around. Horses and humans desire different things, so there is no reason for either of us to show off to the other.

With that said, you are right that horses can pick up subtle changes in human facial expressions and respond emotionally to them. They also seem to be able to smell the difference between sweat from a happy person and a fearful person, and respond with an increased heart rate when their handler anticipates a fearful situation. In general, they seem to be very attuned to our emotional state and our behavior.

The question remains whether this is an innate ability or whether it’s a learned skill based on exposure to different humans. Most likely, it’s a little bit of both.

Emotional attunement is an evolutionary advantage in social species, especially prey animals, because it can help transmit feelings such as fear, which leads to a faster collective response than if each individual animal needs to spot the danger for themselves before reacting. As many social species live in mixed-species environments, there is good reason for this to be an inter-species ability—the lion on the savannah will hunt the antelope as much as the zebra, so it makes sense for them to pick up cues from each other when grazing in the same area.

With that said, there is certainly a learned element to it as well, particularly as we look so different to horses, and they therefore won’t intuitively understand our body language or facial expressions. Over time, however, they learn to associate certain facial expressions, body positions, voice cues and so on with either good or bad outcomes.

A happy person may be more likely to be gentle with them, speak softly, and give them a carrot—all things a horse will find pleasant, and remember. An angry person may be more likely to be brusque, speak sharply, and even take out some of their emotions in their cues, with stronger leg aids and sharper rein tugs—all things that a horse will find unpleasant, and also remember.

Horses have a great memory and are very good at forming associations between events as well as chains of events. In addition, they learn through outcomes. If they behave a certain way, and the outcome is desirable for them—for example a carrot, or the cessation of uncomfortable bit pressure in their mouth—they are more likely to repeat this behavior in the future. And vice versa, if the outcome isn’t desirable, they are less likely to repeat the behavior.

So, would attention and smiles from a human be a desirable outcome for a horse? Not in and of itself, because human attention is not innately rewarding to a horse. But perhaps if they learn to associate it with some other pleasant experience such as a scratch on the withers or a bucket of feed, it’s not unthinkable that they may perform certain behaviors that they know will lead to a smile—and the reward that follows. But this is less about “showing off,” and more about learned behaviours.

Do you have a horse behavior question for equine ethologist Renate Larssen? Send it to for consideration in a future column.

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